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Apologies to our loyal and long-suffering readers.
We recently wrote about how plastic is choking our oceans and the different green packaging technologies being developed to wean us away from petroleum-based products. While we hope we can turn the tide, there’s already an estimated 5.25 trillion plastic particles currently circulating in the world’s oceans, and scientists are only now studying the potential health effects on humans. Yet seafood is big business, with global production hitting about 171 million tons in 2016 and valued at about $132.6 billion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Aquaculture now accounts for about half of total production, and many of those farming operations are using advanced sensors and analytics to be more efficient and eco-friendly. Meanwhile, a number of companies are developing alternative seafood products to further relieve some of the pressure on Nemo and friends.
Disruption of the Seafood Industry
In a way, the seafood industry is facing many of the same challenges as the dairy industry, which is being disrupted by a cohort of startups that are milking concerns about climate change, animal welfare, and human health into a multi-billion-dollar business. We’ve already touched on the anxiety over plastic pollution and human health, but changes in the environment are also increasingly problematic for the seafood industry on two fronts. The consequences of higher seawater temperatures and ocean acidification – water becomes more acidic by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – are already being felt. For example, salmon are dying off in Alaska because the water is too hot, while scientists are already seeing the effects of higher seawater acidity on commodities like shell-building oysters.
On the flip side, fisheries also produce carbon emissions, which a recent study said are much higher than previously estimated, though still just a fraction of the total carbon footprint from food production. And let’s not forget about seafood fraud around endangered species that comprise some of your favorite sushi meals like eel and bluefin tuna.
Alternative Seafood Still in the Guppy Stage
So conditions seem to be in place to support alternative seafood, and we’re not talking about the frozen fish sticks you pick up at the grocery store. Here the picture is different from dairy in several ways. First, the market is nearly nonexistent at this point. The only real numbers we have come from a marketing analysis commissioned by the Plant Based Food Association, which pegged the U.S. plant-based meat industry at $670 million, jumping 24% in just one year, ending in June 2018. That’s most likely driven by the popularity of alt beef brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat (BYND).
Second, while there are a few plant-based seafood startups making waves, a lot of the activity in the alt seafood space actually seems focused on what’s become known as cellular agriculture, though lab-grown meat probably gives you a better idea of what’s in play – bypassing feedlots and slaughterhouses for culturing animals’ cells and creating meat far from picturesque meadows. That’s quite different from alternative dairy, where a handful of still largely early-stage companies are recreating proteins from milk and eggs through a fermentation process similar to beer. The process uses genetically modified yeast, a widespread technology for making all sorts of alternative proteins.
Cell-based Alternative Seafood Startups
Cell-based seafood, in contrast, involves placing the fish cells into a nutrient mix where they grow into actual meat – but without the toxins and microplastics. Let’s dive right into the five alternative seafood startups using cellular agriculture (or, more accurately, cellular aquaculture) to concoct crustaceans and cod out of animals’ cells.
Probably the most well-known of the bunch is Finless Food, a Berkeley, California-based outfit that we first profiled with other lab-grown meat (advocates prefer clean meat) startups a couple of years ago. Since then, the two-year-old company has raised $3.5 million in disclosed funding, though recently took in an undisclosed amount of money in June of this year. The company moved into a new facility in nearby Emeryville where it will further develop its cellular aquaculture platform: